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In December 1944, the Ardennes Forest on the German-Belgium border was considered a “quiet” zone where new American divisions, fresh from the States, came to get acclimated to “life at the front.” No one in Allied headquarters knew that the Ardennes had been personally selected by Hitler to be the soft point through which over 250,000 men and hundreds of Panzers would plunge in the Third Reich’s last-gasp attempt to split the Americans and British armies and perhaps win a negotiated peace in the West. When the Germans crashed through American lines during what became known as the “Battle of the Bulge,” in December 1944, thousands of stunned American soldiers who had never before been in combat were taken prisoner. Most were sent to prisoner-of-war camps, where their treatment was dictated by the Geneva Convention and the rules of warfare. For an unfortunate few – mostly Jewish or other “ethnic” GIs – a different fate awaited them. Taken first to Stalag 9B at Bad Orb, Germany, 350 soldiers were singled out for “special treatment,” segregated from their buddies, and transported by unheated railroad boxcars with no sanitary facilities on a week-long journey to Berga-an-der-Elster, a picturesque village 50 miles south of Leipzig. Awaiting them at Berga was a sinister slave-labor camp bulging with 1,000 inmates. The incarceration at Berga is the only known instance of captured American soldiers being turned into slave laborers at a Nazi concentration camp. Given Up for Dead is the story of their survival. For over three months, the American soldiers worked under brutal, inhuman conditions, building tunnels in a mountainside for the German munitions industry. The prisoners had no protective masks or clothing; were worked for 12 hours per shift with no food, water, or rest; were beaten regularly for the most minor infractions (or none at all); were fed only starvation rations; slept two to a bed in ghastly, lice-infested bunks; and were never allowed a bath or a change of clothing. Of the 350 GIs in the original contingent, 70 of them died within the first two months at Berga; the others struggled to survive in a living nightmare. As the Allies’ front lines moved inexorably closer to Berga, the Nazi guards forced the inmates to endure a death march as a way of keeping them from being liberated; many died along the route. Only the timely arrival of an American armored division at war’s end saved them all from certain death. Strangely, when the war was over, many of the Americans who had survived Berga were required to sign a “security certificate” which forbade them from ever disclosing the details of their imprisonment at Berga. Until recent years, what had happened to the American soldiers at Berga has been a closely guarded secret.
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